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Chef Jake knows What's Cooking



NORTH CANAAN — If you’re driving through North Canaan on a Thursday afternoon, pop your head into What’s Cooking, the diminutive eatery in the center of town, and just breathe deeply. The air is fragrant with the smell of prime rib, roasting slowly to succulent perfection in preparation for the weekly prime rib special (all you can eat for $14.95, accompanied by fresh vegetables and potatoes).

Prime rib is at the moment the main specialty of the house, which is not surprising since chef-owner Pat Elias is the former owner of steakhouses in Vermont and New Jersey.

Brunch foods are also a draw for the restaurant. On Sunday mornings it’s hard to get a table.

For the moment, though, the menu is traditional without being exceptional.

All that will be changing this summer, as new chef Lewis Jacobs (known around the kitchen as Chef Jake) begins to put his imprint on the menu. He and Elias are planning upgrades in quality and choices, but they are committed to making it a menu of foods folks like at a price they can afford.

For Jacobs, cooking at a small restaurant in a small town is a refreshing change from the trajectory of his prior career, as executive chef for organizations such as the Sheraton hotel chain, the National Football League (specifically for the Denver Broncos and Nuggets) and Yellowstone National Park.

"We used to do a thousand dinners a night at Yellowstone," he recalled, during a lull between breakfast and lunch last Thursday. "Yellowstone was huge."

There is never a lull when you’re cooking in those quantities, he said. At What’s Cooking, the scale and pace are different. There are a handful of tables, inside and out back on the deck. Sometimes they’re full of people ordering food. Sometimes they’re not.

"The early part of the week is quieter, as you work toward the weekend," he observed. "The middle of the week is the hump and then it builds on Thursday, Friday, Saturday."

The stress level is also remarkably different for the chef — which suits him just fine.

"My office used to be bigger than this," he said, nodding around the interior of the restaurant.

Although he grew up in Simsbury, what brought Jacobs back to the Northwest Corner was a desire to cure the disease of alcoholism, which he did at Mountainside in North Canaan. He ended up staying on as the facilities executive chef.

"I came for six months and ended up staying for six years," he said. "I’ve been in North Canaan now for seven years. I walk to work. I walk to the grocery store. People see me and say, ‘Hey, there’s Chef Jake!’"

Jacobs, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., understands that there’s more to running a restaurant than just cooking. In addition to ordering and the economics of buying and selling food, he noted, an executive chef also has to understand how to manage a staff and, most of all, how to provide service.

"That’s what it’s all about," he said. "Service."

Marketing is important, too — even when it’s done on a small-town, "Hey, come on over" scale. As this reporter peered into the window of What’s Cooking last week, for example, the chef saw her outside and waved her in.

He wasn’t in his full chef’s regalia yet, but he was a commanding presence in the small restaurant nonetheless, a big man with a big voice and a curling, waxed handlebar mustache (he began waxing and curling it back in the days when he was being interviewed for food magazines, he said).

A little while later, as he was preparing for lunch, Jacobs emerged from the kitchen in a towering, pleated chef’s toque and starched white chef’s coat buttoned over a white shirt and tightly knotted silk tie.

Although the restaurant is not doing a marketing campaign, as such, Jacobs is like a walking billboard for the business. He is a familiar face around town and he sometimes wanders out during slow periods, to visit "my friend Benny, the owner of Roma’s down the street," and to bring samples of baked goods to the Salisbury Bank and Trust branch office across the street.

"I make the cakes and muffins," he said, pointing proudly to an assortment of wrapped sweets on the counter, ready for breakfast, dessert or afternoon snacks.

For the moment, What’s Cooking offers what Elias and Jacobs call "classic bistro" food, which translates into the all-American breakfast favorites (served all day), burgers, sandwiches ("All the sandwiches are tall, New York-style," Jacobs said), wraps. The offerings will be upgraded this summer, with rotating specials likely and perhaps some themed dinners in addition to prime rib night.

"This is New England, maybe we’ll do a seafood night," Jacobs mused.

To find out what’s cooking at What’s Cooking, stop by seven days a week. From Saturday to Friday, breakfast begins at 6 a.m., lunch begins at around 11 a.m., dinner is served from 3 p.m. and continues until 7 or 8 p.m., depending on the crowd. Sunday service is from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.

What’s Cooking is at 99 Main St., the phone number is 860-824-9990.


Summer program at Canaan Child Care

NORTH CANAAN — The Club House, an extension of the Canaan Child Care Center, will offer a summer program at North Canaan Elementary School for children ages 6 to 11.

The program will be designed to fit the interests of the children enrolled, and will run Monday to Friday, June 22 to Aug. 21.

Call Fran Chapell for more information, at 860-824-0597.


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